For the past decade, the joke around Mets pitchers has been that they spend more time injured than active. There’s no shortage of examples; Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard spring to my mind first, but Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander dealt with injuries in their time in Queens, too. Edwin Díaz just missed the 2023 season. Zack Wheeler never quite lived up to his potential when he was there, and injuries were a key reason why. Matt Harvey, Seth Lugo, Steven Matz — heck, here’s a story from 2017 about the Mets’ injury woes, which were already a trope before their recent woes.
In that sense, Coleman Crow is the platonic ideal of a Mets pitcher. He joined the organization in June, part of the package the Angels sent to New York in exchange for Eduardo Escobar. At the time, he hadn’t pitched since late April thanks to an elbow injury. His first notable decision as a Met was to get Tommy John surgery for that elbow; he’s now tracking for a return at the very end of next year, or potentially in 2025. He’s been a Met for roughly six months and thrown exactly zero pitches for them in that time.
Or maybe I should have said: he was a Met for roughly six months. On Wednesday, the Mets traded him to the Brewers in exchange for Adrian Houser and Tyrone Taylor, ending his tenure with the team. You think Harvey was often injured? Crow dialed it up to an entirely different level, albeit in the minors. It’s the kind of performance we might not see again for a while.
Now that I’ve used Crow for my amusing, semi-Mets-bashing intro, I’m going to shelve him for a while to talk about the rest of the trade, but don’t worry, Crowheads; we’ll cover your guy at the end. See, Crow was hardly a hot commodity in the trade market. We had him down as a 40 FV prospect before his injury, and the risk has only increased since then. He was unprotected in this year’s Rule 5 draft. Teams weren’t exactly knocking down the Mets’ doors trying to trade for him.
You can infer, then, that the package of Houser and Taylor probably weren’t essential to Milwaukee’s 2024 plans. Houser is a good enough pitcher that I’m kind of surprised he ended up as surplus; across five years of swingman duty (97 starts, 23 relief appearances), he’s compiled an ERA around 4.00, with peripherals that match. That works out to 1.8 WAR per 150 innings pitched — and coincidentally, he compiled 1.8 WAR in 2023, across only 111 innings.
Houser has one main skill: keeping the ball on the ground. His best and most-used pitch is a sinker that lives in the 91–93-mph range and seems impossibly heavy, dropping two inches more than the average sinker thrown in its rough velocity range. He complements that with a ton of secondaries, none of which I’m in love with; he has a slider, a curveball, a changeup, and a four-seamer, but both of our pitching models agree that all four are below-average offerings.
Houser’s sinker induced fewer grounders in 2023 than it had in his career before this year. You might think that would doom him, and in fact, his home run rate shot up thanks to all the additional fly balls he gave up. But 2023 was also his most effective season in the majors, because his former biggest weakness — command — became a strength. For the first time in his career, he walked fewer than 8% of opposing batters, and all the secondary metrics agree that this looks like a real improvement. He lived in the strike zone more often, got ahead in the count at a good clip, and garnered both more swinging strikes and more called strikes than his 2022 campaign.
If you’re talking yourself into the good version of Houser, that’s a great narrative. His sinker looks as good as ever in terms of movement, though its velocity dipped a bit as the year went on. His depressed groundball rate might disappear in 2024 while his newfound command remains. That would make him something like an off-brand Logan Webb or Framber Valdez; those guys have excellent second pitches to catapult them to another level, but a worse version of an excellent pitcher is still something worth getting excited over.
Even if he doesn’t manage that more-grounders-better-command trick, Houser looks like a perfectly competent fifth starter to me. His xFIP has hovered in the mid-to-low 4s, and his career mark is an even 4.25. He doesn’t seem particularly prone to hard contact; even with an unremarkable groundball/fly ball ratio in 2023, he wasn’t surrendering an abnormal amount of barrels. There are always going to be nits to pick when you’re looking at starters who fit at the back end of a rotation (durability, velo, strikeouts, command, sustainability, the list goes on), but all things considered, most teams could use a guy like Houser somewhere on their 40-man roster.
Honestly, even the Brewers could use a guy like Houser. He made 21 starts for them last year, more or less filling Brandon Woodruff’s spot in the rotation. Woodruff is no longer on the team, so there’s an obvious spot for Houser, but the Brewers filled that spot earlier this winter by signing Joe Ross. Ross isn’t exactly a rotation lock — the last time he threw more than three innings was in 2021, thanks to injury and rehab — but the team saw enough upside to give him a shot at starting anyway.
That move meant that one of Houser or Colin Rea wouldn’t have a rotation spot, and given how Milwaukee tries to stretch its budget as far as possible, the loser of that particular competition was likely headed out of town. Houser is due to make roughly $5.5 million in arbitration this offseason; Rea signed a one-year deal for $4.5 million with a club option tacked onto the back end. That probably made the decision easier: ship the more expensive guy off to the team with money to burn in exchange for a marginal prospect.
Taylor is in this trade, too, and his inclusion is even easier to understand. The Brewers are in the strange situation of having too many outfielders for their own good. Christian Yelich had a resurgent, on-base driven season and isn’t going anywhere. Sal Frelick, Garrett Mitchell, and Joey Wiemer all looked good enough in 2023 that the team is looking for space to play them in 2024. That doesn’t even count Jackson Chourio, whose record contract foreshadows an early and permanent call-up. Even with four spots (counting DH), Taylor didn’t really fit into the picture anymore.
Like Houser, Taylor can be a perfectly nice complementary option on a good team as a fourth outfielder who can handle center in a pinch and hits enough that you won’t be embarrassed to run him out there. His 101 career wRC+ probably overstates his talent, but not by a ton; Steamer projects him for a 95 wRC+ next year. There are certainly downside risks: his aggressive approach might have gone too far in 2023, when he chased nearly 40% of pitches outside the strike zone and got on base at a career-low .267 clip, which torpedoed his overall batting line. But even in a down year, Taylor’s defensive chops — he’s fast and has a huge arm — made him valuable. Just not, you know, valuable to a team with a bushelful of young outfielders, particularly considering that he will likely make nearly $2 million in arbitration; he had to go.
The Mets are surely excited to be on the receiving end of Milwaukee’s unburdening. They needed pitching and outfielders badly; we’ve penciled in Houser as their fourth starter and Taylor as their starting left fielder. I’m not completely sure whether they’re going to spend 2024 shooting for the playoffs or laying more of a groundwork for the future, but in either case, both Milwaukee castoffs will be helpful in filling in the gaps not occupied by the team’s mix of stars and interesting youngsters.
The real benefit to Milwaukee here isn’t Crow; it’s salary relief. The Brewers have a lot more need for $7 million in cost reduction than the Mets do, having built their whole organization around trying to pay less than that for average players, and the Mets don’t have much of a farm system to draw from when they’re looking for low-end regulars. That makes me love this trade for New York, which has struggled to get guys like Houser and Taylor without dipping into free agency or trading away valuable minor leaguers. Merely absorbing their contracts and sending over a rehabbing pitcher seems like a much better way to go about things.
My only question, then, is whether this is the best return the Brewers could have gotten for their players. In the short term, I think the answer is obviously yes; otherwise, someone else would have traded for them. My guess is that they could have pried slightly more from someone for Houser if they dangled him all winter; pitching, after all, is in high demand everywhere, and there are only so many free agents still out there. But that move comes with risk: hold Houser in reserve waiting for someone to bowl you over with an offer, and you might accidentally still have him on the roster on opening day.
That doesn’t sound like a disaster, but let me pitch it this way: the Brewers can probably use their $7 million in savings to improve their team with a veteran infielder or reliever, and they couldn’t really do that if they both kept Houser and stuck to a budget. In my eyes, this trade is all about risk mitigation: they wanted to end the offseason with Houser and Taylor off the books, and so they leapt at the first chance to clear both of their salaries and get at least a token return.
Perhaps that return will end up being more than a token. Crow looked awesome in a laughably small sample in 2023, striking out more than a third of opposing batters and walking only 7%. He performed well in 2022, to boot; if not for his injury, he might already be knocking on the door of the majors as an up-and-down, command-over-stuff swingman type. The Brewers seem to get the most out of those types of pitchers quite often. Eric Lauer is the most recent example I can think of, but they’ve demonstrated a knack for figuring out what small adjustments can take tweeners over the line from minor league out-getter to big league contributor.
Yep, you guessed it: I’m awarding this trade the inevitable win-win grade that you surely expected when you heard the Mets and Brewers were making a swap. One team needs money, the other talent; it’s hardly rocket science. But I think that the Brewers are valuing risk aversion quite highly in this deal, and that the Mets were smart to jump on the opportunity to add two reliable rotation players at a negligible (to them) cost. I’ll award them a capital WIN, the Brewers a lower-case win, and me a richly deserved walk around the neighborhood with hot chocolate.